Monday, 31 August 2015

Out For A Kill (2003)

Director: Michael Oblowitz
Screenplay: Danny Lerner, Dennis Dimster and Sam Hayes
Cast: Steven Seagal, Michelle Goh, Corey Johnson, Tom Wu, Ozzie Yue
90 minutes

Synopsis: An archaeologist Prof. Robert Burns (Seagal) finds himself an unwitting accomplish to a Chinese drug cartel. Jailed on the other side of the world, and his wife and female archaeological assistant killed, Burns travels across the world followed by two agents (Goh and Johnson) to take his revenge of the leader of the cartel and his various henchmen, following an arcane Chinese alphabet and busting heads in as he goes along.

It might be a surprise to see Steven Seagal making an appearance on a blog about abstract movies, but neither was referencing him in the Last Year In Marienbad (1961) conventional either, the influence that led me to cover this film. Action films are as likely to be as strange in their content as in other genres, usually because of the trends and influences that can distort them into the final results seen on cinema screens or DVD. I originally choose Out For A Kill as a perfect example of the straight-to-video films of the Millennium with 80s heroes at their most extreme, when individuals like Seagal could make four films a year in hectic pace on low budgets. It's plot is simple, sewn together from details seen many times before and stripped down to an extreme, and the result including how the film was put together left me perplex when I first saw it lumber along my TV screen.

I'm not that fond of Seagal. Whether it says something about a person or not, I'm a Jean Claude Van Damme fan. With Seagal, I went through a binge of his films at one, from the classics like Out For Justice (1991) to his straight-to-video work, only to suddenly find a complete disinterest in him. Seagal as an individual is head scratching, somehow able to be cross interaction with the Dalai Lama and a friendship with Vladimir Putin within the same life, able to go from a music career to being a part of a police force and having part of it recorded onscreen for reality television. Then there are more controversial aspects. I'm not making a cheap swipe at Putin - in fact I'd want to be a fly on the wall whenever the two were in the same room. No, I'm thinking some of the controversies including a certain lawsuit that, without knowledge of the full details, could sound liable. There's also the fact that, out of the many eighties action stars he's gone Colonel Kurtz in terms of his public persona. With Van Damme, after the ego, the drug addiction and straight-to-video films, there is a possible happy ending where after the least expected redemption, a meta-film about him called JCVD (2008), he's shown a self deprecating sense of humour and humbleness, legitimate acting talent now he's much older, and gets to rock a mullet and a Canadian tuxedo on the cinema screen. (It's in Coors Light commercials admittedly but still a wonderful sight to see, and makes suffering through all the trailers worth it to see them.) Seagal, to purposely avoid character assassination, has the baggage of jokes made at his expense about his increased waistline and his fashion sense you have to push to the side, and even then there is an issue of his ego. Compared to Van Damme at his worse, even the characters Seagal played in his classics had something that put me off him. A lot of it is that he rarely has roles where he was in real danger or was harmed by the villains. Probably the most accomplished, real martial artist in the eighties American action films, he however always seemed to plough through villains without a scratch on him, lessening the potential excitement of fight scenes, and how wanton the characters' act of violence was, worse when the non-violent and Eastern philosophy appeared in his later work, caused further problems. He then became stoned faced very quickly making it harder for me to like him. Neither does making your directorial debut On Deadly Ground (1994) help and forcing the viewer through a prolonged environmental message at the exact end which would put people off conservation.

Speaking only of the figure played in the film, former thief and archaeologist Robert Burns is the most absurd part of the entire thing. With a deep and serious voice, permanent expressionless face and the trademark ponytail, Seagal does come off as a caricature. His fighting style since the classics in his career was already less interesting to me because he was always in control, no blow landed on him, and knowing the restrictions that came about with these later films in terms of stunt doubles or editing hasn't helped suspend disbelief. The revenge course Burns takes is surface deep like in a lot of action films, his wife a hollow prop and his assistant complete forgotten, but its confounding here because he merely walks into a room with each henchman, says his wife was killed and kills them without any scratches on him. This completely offsets the tone of an action film, feeling more like a slasher movie where you are on the killer's side. The addition of the detectives is pointless as well because, while Michelle Goh is very beautiful, they are both useless and were even responsible for Burns' wife dying in the first place. They stand out only more than the random French detective that briefly appears in a grey Paris set, or anyone else, because of the amount of screen time Goh gets.

What made the film originally jarring was how, like a frayed rope, it was in continuous danger of the strands finally snapping and breaking. Part of the entertainment is how unexpected plot flourishes appear that would seem utterly out of place in other genres. A fight in a Chinatown barber shop could be like many others but the goon left to fight Seagal is depicted as practicing monkey style kung Fu, to the point of mimicking scratching herself and apprehensive twitches, and can run on all fours vertically on the mirrors and walls in the room. A trip to Bulgaria and sinister nightlife includes Goh's character trying to play off lesbian, drug addicted tattoo artists for information, a random tangent just for the sake of titillation. A death of an important character near the end is completely nonsensical, starting with their abrupt internal monologue, about back-story never mentioned before, and ending with abrupt editing the moment they die which confuses the viewer. Things happen merely because for most of the plot. There is a vibe of The Cannon Group, Inc., the company known for ridiculous eighties action films, and that is not surprising since the producers of Out For A Kill were Millennium Films, a company built by former employees or individuals who worked at Cannon during the Golan-Globus era until its bankruptcy.

Technical Detail:
A significant factor to the film's chaotic presentation is its locations. The story travels from New York to Bulgaria to France and places in-between across the world, but there is an artificiality enforced by how restricted the locations are externally whilst interiors are continually used. The film is an American co-production with Aruba, an island country IN the southern Caribbean sea, a country which I only learn the existence of through this film and others shot there. There are only a few Arubian films in IMDB, and nearly all but two are a low budget action film, including Jean Claude Van Damme's Knock Off (1998) and two Seagal movies including Out For A Kill. This is problematic, especially as there are Arubian filmmakers and an Aruba International Film Festival in existence, causing one to wonder why there are no other entries on IMDB then the few on there, but the odd way I discovered the existence of this island emphasises the same strange feeling of seeing the Bulgarian sets for the first time with their machine grey paint design. The film regardless of where the story goes to feels like it exists in its own world even when New York aerial shots are used.

The film is incredibly small in terms of production design and it rushes through plot points for a simple story. Excessive use of editing and establishing shots bombard you to the point that you do get lost by what's going on if you over think it. I originally thought the CGI was incredibly obvious but instead it's the obvious green screen which sticks out, the character suddenly disconnected to their background. An image of Seagal brooding over fire imposed in front of him with a blocky jaw and the ponytail has an almost farcical nature to it. I had always considered that director Michael Oblowitz purposely made an action film that, rather than a parody, was one that felt like it was whittled down to its most eyebrow raising images. I thought this because he came from the No Wave movement in the late seventies and early eighties that lead to Jim Jarmusch and the Cinema of Trangression directors like Nick Zedd. Revisiting the film, this is up to debate completely now as a theory.

Abstract Spectrum: Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Exactly like Belly of the Beast (2003), Ching Siu Tung's Thai set film with Seagal, the star becomes a prop for a film around him that is continually close to falling off the rails as it goes. Sadly Out For A Kill manages to restrain itself before this happens. I choose the film to cover because I thought it was a chaotic mix of weirdness, but most of the film revisiting it is the same as many other of Seagal's straight-to-video films I've seen. Belly of the Beast in hindsight would've had a greater chance of getting an Abstract Rating. "Psychotronic" is apt as it usually denotes films which attempt to cater to the widest audience but are effected by influences during production that encourage the oddest things to take place. This does mean however that, while a film can be strange, it's not necessarily more than that.

Personal Opinion:
Out For A Kill has diminished on this viewing, at least in terms of being a strange little action film which shambles on through its plot, something which I held with delight. Now it feels quite predictable in places and reviewing it enforces that only a few films can ever really quality as "guilty pleasures", if you feel guilt watching them or not, only those which stay with you and have something you are interest in retaining some quality to you, while others will diminish if you watch them over and over again. Out For A Kill is one such film for myself.

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